Produce Transportation 101: A Temperature & Humidity Guide for Fruits & Vegetables

July 4, 2023

July 2, 2024


x min read

In this modern world—where global markets thrive and fresh produce is available year-round—the journey from the farm to consumers’ plates is a complex and fascinating one. Behind every succulent fruit and crisp vegetable lies a carefully orchestrated process of produce transportation and shipping, connecting farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers worldwide. Each of these stakeholders demands end-to-end visibility to know the location and condition of their shipments throughout the supply chain journey—and for a good reason: without real-time tracking of perishable foods, they risk massive waste, customer dissatisfaction, and reputational damage.

To put this into perspective, the Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that approximately $400 billion is lost annually between harvest and the retail market—and likely a substantial portion of that can be attributed to temperature or humidity excursions in the supply chain, either in warehousing or produce transportation. What’s even worse is when a problem isn’t discovered until after fresh produce reaches a retailer’s shelves. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as of early June 2023, there had been more than 40 food and beverage recalls in the U.S.—many related to contaminated or spoiled produce.  

This ebook explores the intricacies of fresh produce transportation, shedding light on the key players involved and addressing the challenges faced along the way. This resource contains the following sections:

  1. An Overview: How to Transport Fresh Vegetables & Fruits
  2. The Challenges of Knowing Temperature & Humidity When Shipping Produce
  3. A Shipper’s Guide to Optimal Temperature & Humidity Ranges
  4. Why Packaging is Vital in the Transportation of Fruits & Vegetables
  5. Best Practices in Produce Logistics

Section I: An Overview of How to Transport Fresh Vegetables & Fruits

Produce shipping encompasses the logistics network for transporting fruits, vegetables, and other perishable goods from origin to various destinations. From the moment a seed is planted in the fertile soil to the moment the final product reaches a local grocery store or a dinner table, numerous steps are involved in ensuring the safe and timely delivery of fresh produce—to ensure that it retains the utmost quality.

At the heart of produce shipping are the key players: farmers, shippers, carriers, logistics partners, and retailers. Farmers devote their expertise, dedication, and hard work to cultivating bountiful harvests. At the same time, shippers coordinate the logistics of packaging, storing, and preparing produce for transport—and then tracking shipments throughout the journey. Carriers, including trucking companies, shipping vessels, and air cargo services, transport these goods across vast distances, navigating through intricate supply chains. Finally, retailers play a crucial role in receiving, displaying, and distributing produce to consumers, using special refrigerated market areas to ensure its freshness and quality. 

However, the process of fresh produce transportation is fraught with challenges. Delicate fruits and vegetables are highly perishable and require precise temperature and humidity control, proper handling, and careful monitoring to maintain their freshness and nutritional value. Factors such as distance, weather conditions, transportation infrastructure, and regulatory compliance—namely, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act and subsequent Final Rule on Traceability Records—add additional layers of complexity. 

Read on as we delve into the realm of fresh produce transportation, exploring the critical roles of its key players—and unraveling the challenges they face. By gaining a deeper understanding of this intricate process, shippers and stakeholders can better appreciate the remarkable journey that brings nature's bounty to grocers’ shelves and consumers’ tables—while also seeking innovative solutions to overcome the hurdles that lie ahead.

Section II: The Challenges of Managing Temperature & Humidity When Shipping Produce

Produce transportation is complex due to its delicate nature. Any disruption in the cold chain (the process of maintaining optimal conditions throughout the transportation process) can lead to:

  • Delays and damage to your OTIF rate
  • Rejected loads and food waste
  • Loss of revenue
  • Added costs associated with replacing shipments and handling freight claims
  • Customer dissatisfaction
  • Reputational damage

In many ways, those costs are merely the tip of the iceberg lettuce when it comes to the challenges of managing produce transportation. Consider the following:

  • Each type of fresh produce has specific temperature and humidity requirements (see the guides in Section IV), which makes it challenging to transport different types of produce together in one truckload. For example, the correct temperature range for spinach might spoil a batch of apples, and the proper moisture levels for grapes could render lettuce inedible​​.
  • Specialized packaging is crucial to prevent spoilage or contamination. Any damage to the packaging can impact freshness—and potentially freeze the product instead of just keeping it cold​​.
  • The fresh produce shipping process can be costly due to the need for specialized equipment, training for staff, and extra maintenance to ensure proper packing—and the correct cold chain temperatures and humidity levels​​.
  • Regulatory compliance is essential to avoid financial and legal issues. Shippers must maintain—and be able to promptly access—digital records proving product has been kept at the proper temperature and condition throughout its lifecycle.
  • The fresh produce market is highly competitive, and companies must find ways to innovate while improving supply chain efficiency—and reducing costs​​. 
  • The demand for fresh, nutritious food is rising, and shippers must be prepared to handle any increases in demand​. Those who invest in supply chain technology that provides end-to-end visibility and real-time tracking experience higher customer satisfaction.
  • Specialized labor, which is increasingly scarce due to labor shortages, is necessary for handling fresh produce​.
  • Effective inventory management is vital due to the limited shelf life of fresh produce. Too much inventory can result in a lack of storage space and waste, while too little inventory can lead to missed sales opportunities​​.
  • Shippers must track multiple factors—including temperature, humidity, light exposure, and shock absorption—during transit to ensure optimal conditions throughout the shipment's journey​​.
  • Processing and analyzing data accurately is essential for identifying trends or patterns that can help optimize operations​.

That’s a burdensome list of challenges for shippers overseeing produce transportation. While they can’t control many external influences—weather, traffic, and labor shortages, to name a few—shippers can use real-time tracking solutions to constantly monitor the temperature, humidity, and location of fresh produce during transit. Doing so assures stakeholders that steps have been taken to deliver top-quality fruits and vegetables—on time, in good condition—so they’re safe and ready to consume. 

For more challenges related to produce logistics, check out Tive’s infographic:  “10 Critical Challenges in Fresh Grocery & Supermarket Supply Chains”

Section III: A Shipper’s Guide to Temperature & Humidity Ranges

Temperature and relative humidity during produce transportation are two of the most critical factors in maintaining the quality and safety of fresh produce freight. Temperature affects the rate of respiration, ethylene production, and spoilage. Relative humidity affects the moisture content of produce, which can affect its texture, appearance, and shelf life. The tables that follow detail the ideal temperature, humidity levels, and packaging requirements by commodity shipped.

Ideal Temperature Ranges Needed to Maximize Shelf LifeS

The most common fresh produce types shipped, along with their recommended temperature ranges to achieve ideal shelf life:

Ideal Relative Humidity by Produce Type

Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air, often called “relative humidity.” While humans usually loathe the oppressiveness of high humidity—think of those sweltering, steamy days when you step outside and immediately sense the need for another shower—fresh fruits and vegetables thrive in conditions where water is abundant in the air.

High relative humidity helps fresh produce retain its weight, appearance, nutritional quality, and flavor. On the opposite end, low relative humidity leads to higher transpiration rates—the loss of water from the produce—resulting in mold, bacteria, wilting, softening, and reduced juiciness. No one wants dry oranges, shriveled grapes, wilted lettuce, etc. 

In general, when storing and transporting produce, the higher the humidity, the better. The table below shows the optimal relative humidity ranges for select produce items.

Section IV: Why Packaging is Vital in the Transportation of Fruits & Vegetables

Packaging plays a crucial role in the distribution and transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables: it helps protect the produce from damage, provides convenience for handling and storage, and ensures product quality. Here's an overview of some standard packaging options used for fresh fruits and vegetables:

  1. Cartons: Widely used for packaging fruits and vegetables, cartons are typically made of paperboard or corrugated cardboard and come in various sizes and shapes. Cartons provide good protection and stackability and can be customized with ventilation holes or liners to control moisture and airflow.
  2. Crates: These rigid containers are made of wood, plastic, or metal, and have slatted sides or bottoms to allow for air circulation and drainage. Crates are commonly used for transporting bulk quantities of produce, especially heavier fruits and vegetables such as melons or root crops. They offer durability and are reusable.
  3. Pallets: Pallets are flat platforms used for stacking and moving large quantities of packaged fruits and vegetables. They are typically made of wood, plastic, or metal, and are compatible with forklifts or pallet jacks. Produce is often loaded onto pallets in cartons, crates, or bins for efficient handling and storage.
  4. Hampers: These baskets are made from wicker, bamboo, or plastic, and are often used for premium or specialty produce, including berries, cherries, or gourmet vegetables. Hampers provide an attractive presentation and excellent airflow, making them ideal for gift packs or retail displays.
  5. Bins: Also known as bulk bins or totes, these large containers are used for storing and shipping bulk quantities of produce. They are typically made of plastic or wood, and can hold several hundred kilograms of fruits or vegetables. Bins have a sturdy construction and multiple access points—which makes them practical for products such as apples, citrus fruits, or potatoes.
  6. Bags and pouches: Certain fruits and vegetables are often packaged in bags or pouches made of various materials, including plastic, mesh, or breathable films. These packages provide protection and visibility—and can be easily sealed and resealed. Shippers involved with produce transportation often use them for products such as onions, citrus fruits, or leafy greens.

It's worth noting that packaging practices can vary depending on the type of produce, market requirements, and sustainability considerations. Many efforts aim to develop environmentally friendly packaging options—such as biodegradable materials or reusable containers—to reduce waste and minimize the environmental impact of packaging in the fresh produce industry.

Section V: Best Practices for Produce Logistics

Following are some additional tips to help maintain the quality and safety of fresh produce during shipping:

  • Pack the fresh produce promptly after harvest. The longer produce sits at ambient temperatures, the more likely it is to spoil.
  • Use proper packaging materials. The type of packaging material you use can help protect fresh produce from damage and spoilage. For example, pack fruits and vegetables in boxes or bags lined with a moisture-proof material.
  • Keep produce cool and humid. As mentioned above, the ideal temperature and relative humidity for shipping fresh produce vary depending on the type of produce. Use a temperature-controlled shipping container or truck to help maintain the proper temperature and humidity levels.
  • Inspect produce regularly. Inspect produce regularly for signs of spoilage—such as mold, discoloration, or soft spots. If you find any signs of spoilage, discard the produce immediately.
  • Real-time tracking of shipment conditionsincluding temperature and humidity, during produce transportation is a must. 

By following these tips, shippers can help to ensure that fresh produce arrives at its destination in good condition and ready to be consumed.

For more best practices, read Tive’s white paper, “Put Your Fresh Foot Forward: 14 Transportation Best Practices for Shipping Perishable Produce.”

The Value of Visibility in Produce Shipping

Tive, a multi-award-winning innovator of real-time trackers and supply chain visibility solutions, understands the importance of monitoring temperature and humidity during produce transportation. This guide—combined with Tive’s technology and customer support—are invaluable resources for shippers tasked with safeguarding fresh fruits and vegetables from farm to fork with the highest degree of quality assurance.  

Shippers using Tive’s Solo 5G trackers and cloud platform can monitor real-time data and get alerted the moment temperature or humidity excursions occur—enabling them to take swift and decisive action to save loads. A few examples are:

  • Alpine Fresh, a grower, packer, and shipper of fresh fruits and vegetables, saved a $90,000 shipment of asparagus bound for New Jersey and a $120,000 blueberries shipment headed to Miami, thanks to Tive’s technology and its 24/7 Live Monitoring premium services.
  • Sun-Glo of Idaho, a potato grower, received a real-time alert notification from the Tive cloud platform that a refrigerated truck experienced a malfunction in its cooling system. Sun-Glo contacted the driver, who fixed the problem immediately. Sun-Glo delivered its load on time and in full, avoiding a potentially significant insurance claim.

The cost of tracking temperature and humidity—in real time—is not cheap. However, the examples above and this on-demand webinar demonstrate that it is possible to measure the return on investment and make the business case for real-time visibility.

Download the PDF version of “Produce 101: A Temperature & Humidity Guide for Fruits & Vegetables” for easy reference.

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